Richard Charkin: In Appreciation of Copyright Pages

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The copyright pages most people flip past may ‘represent both a history of the book and of our industry.’ Richard Charkin reads them first.

Image – Getty iStockphoto: Gizela Glavas

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

The ‘Title Verso’
Bo Diddley memorably sang “You can’t judge a book by the cover.” He didn’t add “But you can learn a lot from its copyright page.”

Richard Charkin

I’m frequently upbraided by family and friends when they show me a book they’ve enjoyed or hated. I rather ignore the cover design. The binding doesn’t interest me. And the words themselves won’t help me as they require reading.

I turn first in every case to the copyright page, which I still think of as the “title verso.” This might seem strange as this page, at first glance, is deeply boring. Let me try to explain my obsession with this most boring bit of any book.

Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’

Copyright pages used to be less cluttered. For example, I found one on my bookshelf in a rather lovely 1964 Jonathan Cape edition of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

Image: Richard Charkin

There’s no mention of the publisher at all. Those were the days when the printer was more in the spotlight, and not just the printer but also the papermaker and the binder. That one page tells a lot about changes in our industry.

Also in this case, the copyright is in the name of Ernest Hemingway Ltd. This edition appeared several years after Hemingway’s death and presumably his estate transferred his intellectual property into a company for tax reasons.

I’ve made a note to myself to contemplate reissuing the whole Hemingway oeuvre in 2031 if I‘m still alive. The cover is beautiful but I’ve learned so much more from the title verso.

Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’

Roll on 50 years to the hardback publication in the United Kingdom of Donna Tartt’s brilliant The Goldfinch. It has a much more cluttered copyright page, with much to be discovered.

First of all, the publisher’s name is identified five times, compared with zero in the 1964 Hemingway. I don’t know exactly when I bought this book but it had already reprinted nine time in its first 12 months, which tells its own story. I have to confess I was involved in the auction to publish this book and for once regret not winning—by and large, coming second in a big auction is the best place to be.

But there’s more to be discovered, reflecting our industry. The title page describes consolidation: Little, Brown, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, an Hachette UK company. It doesn’t mention that Hachette UK is part of Hachette Livre, which in turn is part of Lagardere.

Interesting that, like Hemingway, the copyright is in the name of a limited company, not the author herself. The page reflects the growing impact of legal matters–moral rights, copyright clearances, concern over being sued if someone recognizes him- or herself as a character in a novel, cataloguing in publication, and so on.

And now a greenwashing statement about the use of paper from responsible sources and well-managed forests. There’s also the emergence of a “c-format” edition—which refers to an early paperback edition for sale in continental Europe including the Republic of Ireland and post-customs airport shops, and usually in Australia and New Zealand. Why these territories prefer paperbacks is a bit of a mystery as the book buyers are not that different from book buyers in the UK or the United States, for that matter. That is the way we do it, though.

Colm Tóibín’s ‘The Magician’

The most interesting thing here is a line reading, “The authorized representative in the EEA is Penguin Random House Ireland… .”

A line like this is appearing on the copyright pages of most major UK-based publishing businesses. What does it tell us? It’s a way of pretending still to be part of Europe despite the United Kingdom’s asinine decision to exit the European Union. I hope that in the not too distant future this line will become utterly redundant.

And while we’re thinking about redundancy, I wonder whether Bertelsmann, the ultimate owners of Penguin Random House worldwide, might think about shortening their brand from the rather clumsy Penguin Random House UK or USA or wherever to the simpler, more memorable, more author-friendly, more resonant, more distinguished Penguin.

Judging a Book

So, while I accept that ultimately you can only judge a book by its content, perhaps we might all pay a bit more attention to the copyright pages. They represent both a history of the book and of our industry.

Update, December 11: Since our publication in early November, “Velocity of Content”─Copyright Clearance Center‘s podcast series with Christopher Kenneally─has had a follow-up interview with Richard Charkin on the “title verso,” a discussion prompted by this column. You can find that conversation here, with a transcript provided.

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here. Richard Charkin’s opinions are his own, of course, and not necessarily reflective of those of Publishing Perspectives.

About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the international advisory board of Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin has an MA in natural sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a supernumerary fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’

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